UK’s relationship with WTO unclear following Brexit

Labour Party

The complex process of understanding and moving through Brexit negotiations knows no bounds. Every day a new issue arises. Some of the problems are so grand that it’s difficult to know where to begin, trying to untangle the intricate web of complex legal and political ramifications.

One area I’ve recently been drawn to is the position of the UK and its membership to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) post Brexit.

Of course, currently our membership to the WTO is as part of our relationship with the EU.

If Brexit progresses, then obviously our membership with the WTO will naturally cease to exist. Some probably dismiss the problems of re-joining the organisation and believe the UK’s re admission would be a straight forward process and the UK’s wishes will be accommodated.

However, those who believe it to be so straightforward are completely misguided. They either ignore or are ignorant of the way business is conducted at WTO. Around 162 countries are members of the WTO and it conducts business by way of consensus rather than by strict voting. This can lead to all sorts of issues, chiefly that matters may not be resolved or at least this can’t be guaranteed.

Precisely because the WTO operates by way of consensus just one objection from any country will further stall the UK’s ability to re-join. As such ongoing disputes we have with other WTO states, an obvious example being Russia, could jeopardise the UK’s future position. Either way it won’t be a quick or simple process.

By the end of last week, a joint proposal for future membership between Brussels and the UK had broken down. Despite this the UK plans to speak during its 21-month transition period with an independent voice at the WTO table; a move the European Commission is resisting.

How the UK’s membership to the WTO will be resolved is an ongoing question and is just one example of the very many complexities surrounding Brexit.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

The Winter Olympics kicked off in Sochi this week, with Russian premier Vladimir Putin declaring them open at a majestic ceremony on Friday. The Games cost £30 billion, making them the most expensive in history, and a large part of Friday’s Opening Ceremony was designed to show how Russia has moved into the modern age.

Yet the country’s social conservativism, particularly when it comes to gay rights, continues to be a source of anger and controversy as the Winter Olympics begin in earnest. International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach used his address to the stadium in Sochi to celebrate The Games as an embrace of “human diversity and unity”, and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon also condemned Russia’s record. Putin’s speech to the crowd was in the end notable for its brevity, although a section of the ceremony designed around the theme of traditional marriage was seen by some as a show of defiance.

In June of last year Russia’s government introduced laws limiting so-called “propaganda” about homosexuality – supposedly to “protect minors” from exposure – and they have persistently condoned anti-LGBT statements by public officials while banning and breaking up gay pride events. American firm AT&T, who are sponsoring the Winter Olympics, have condemned Russia’s human rights record, but other sponsors – including McDonalds, Visa and Coca-Cola – have thus far refused to follow suit. Michael Cashman MEP, my friend and colleague at the European Parliament and a lifetime campaigner on gay rights, took the radical step of cutting up his Visa card in Strasbourg last week, in protest at this. It was a bold step, showing the strength of his feeling on the issue, and was one which I fully support.

I wish all the UK’s athletes the very best of luck at the Winter Olympics. I hope we’ll see a wonderful competition and a fantastic spectacle, and that in the long term the event will serve to highlight the treatment LBGT people are still subjected to in Russia and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, yet another rainy week saw The Thames reach its highest level ever, putting at risk an unprecedented number of homes to the west of London and in Kent. COBRA met regularly throughout the week, and by Sunday the Environment Agency had 175 flood warnings in place across the UK, and the Ministry of Defence had drafted in military personnel to provide support for communities.

As the flooding continued some looked to make political capital out of the situation, with David Cameron suggesting on Friday that “the pause in dredging that took place in the late 90s” was to blame. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles criticised former Labour Minister and head of the Environment Agency Chris Smith, accusing them of lacking humanity and expertise. To give him a modicum of credit, Pickles refused to stoop as low as Ukip, who used the crisis as a means of attacking Britain’s International Aid commitments – “Charity begins at home,” as Nigel Farage put it – yet Pickles’ attack still rankles many trying to deal with the problem at the sharp end. In his response, written for The Guardian, Smith said, “I’ve never in my life seen the same sort of storm of background briefing, personal sniping and media frenzy getting in the way of decent people doing a valiant job trying to cope with unprecedented natural forces”.

With much of the flooding happening close to my own constituency in London, I wish the very best to the people who have been affected. I hope, as the weather gets worse this week, that those in charge start pulling together to help those who are suffering. Chris Smith was 100% right – this is not the time for playing politics.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

Protesters this week took to the streets in the Ukraine after the government there reversed plans for greater EU integration. Events were sparked at the start of the week, after the country’s President, Viktor Yanukovich, succumbed to pressure from The Kremlin and backed out, at the eleventh hour, of a free trade and political integration pact with Europe. At the subsequent EU summit on Friday, Yanukovich stood by his decision, prompting further demonstrations, with peaceful protesters dispersed from Kiev’s Independence Square early on Saturday.

Over the weekend 300,000 strong crowds converged on the city, and marchers carrying EU flags clashed with riot police. Tear gas was used on demonstrators, many of whom had travelled from Ukrainian-speaking parts of the country where pro-EU sentiment is strongest. Recent polls show 45% of Ukrainians support EU integration– compared to less than a third who say the country should remain in Moscow’s orbit.

Those involved in the Orange uprising of nine years ago described developments this week as “a revolution”. With opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko still jailed, many feel the demands of the 2004 insurgency – for a more transparent, less corrupt democracy – have not been met. For some it came down to a straight East-West decision. One demonstrator said he was there “to support a European choice for the Ukraine”.

The Ukraine is very difference place to Britain, and drawing overly close parallels would be pointless. But I do find it striking, when so many recognise EU integration as their best hope of a stable and prosperous future, that those on the UK political right want to turn their back on the continent.

Eurosceptics will mock the comparison, arguing that Britain is an affluent world power whereas the Ukraine is a post-USSR satellite state. But they underestimate the extent to which our wealth and global influence come because of – rather than despite – the fact we are in Europe. I will be making this case tomorrow evening at an ‘EU In or Out’ debate at One Birdcage Walk in Westminster.

This week also saw London Mayor Boris Johnson spark outrage by claiming, in a speech commemorating Margaret Thatcher, that fighting inequality was “impossible” because “16% of our species have an IQ below 85”. He added, using language which verged on social Darwinism, that “The harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top”.

Although couched in Johnson’s usual crowd-pleasing terms the comments went down badly, both in the room and among politicians. Nick Clegg called The Mayor’s words “unpleasant, careless elitism”.

Johnson is a florid and often frivolous character, who uses eccentricity to beguile voters who would otherwise find his views repellent. As someone from a privileged background, who is set on extending the inequalities from which he has profited, he is the very opposite of what a city like London, with its jarring poverty and wealth, is in need of.

Finally, as I wrote in my round-up last month, we are now into the part of the year where women effectively cease to be paid. It is an outrage that the gender pay gap still exists. As Labour’s spokesperson for women in Europe I am determined that the EU leads from the front in the fight to eliminate it. This week I set out my ideas about how we can make this happen, and from now on I will be producing regular bulletins on what the EU is doing to end workplace inequality for women.

FIFA: Bringing Sport into Disrepute

Labour Party

Sepp Blatter

It’s difficult to read about the current crisis in FIFA without a slight sense of schadenfreude.  Since England lost the chance to host the World Cup 2018 with an embarrassing two votes going to our bid, there has been a general mood of antipathy towards world football’s governing body.  The fact that the World Cup went to Russia, who have a rather questionable human rights record, limited press freedom and what some have described as a ‘mafia state’, made the loss all the more painful.  But that day FIFA managed the double whammy of bad decisions and awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a country where there are many problems, one of the worst being homosexuality is illegal.  There was a sense that something ‘wasn’t right’ and it’s hard not to feel slightly vindicated by the current crop of accusations and recriminations carrying on in Zurich.

Self-regulation have always been the watch words when it comes to governance in sport, but perhaps the current situations shows that there is a space for legislators.  I’m not suggesting that the EU or any other supra-national governing body get involved in the allocation of World Cups, that sounds like too much of a headache, but there may be a need a for more scrutiny and more legislation.

The Lisbon Treaty means that the EU now has greater competence in sport and the Commission has handed down its first communication on the subject.  This communication looks at, among other things, doping, sports betting and player transfers.  These are areas where the sports organisations have little ability or willingness to intervene.  Sport affects the lives of so many across the EU, it is only right that we ensure that it’s held to the highest standards.  Otherwise organisations such as FIFA, with their huge amounts of money and power, can end up bringing sport into disrepute.